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Tornado deaths in Kentucky reveal prioritization of profit over workers

Reports from Mayfield Consumer Products employees suggest management’s disregard for those working there may have kept more people in the tornado’s path.
Crews clear the rubble at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory on Dec. 13, 2021 in Mayfield, Ky.
Crews clear the rubble at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory on Monday in Mayfield, Ky.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Of the 74 people known to have died late Friday in the deadliest tornado event in Kentucky’s history, at least eight were killed at a candle factory in Mayfield where, according to multiple employees, management threatened to fire those who had asked to leave. Those reports from employees of Mayfield Consumer Products suggest that management’s disregard for those working there may have kept more people in the tornado’s path. The accounts from those employees illustrate — even better than some factories’ reckless Covid-19 policies did — capitalism’s expectation that American workers put their employers’ interests over their own lives.

The accounts from those employees illustrate capitalism’s expectation that American workers put their employers’ interests over their own lives.

During deadly extreme weather events, flying debris, falling trees and sometimes rising water can be the direct causes of death. But expectations that even as danger looms that workers punch in and punch out at the prescribed time cannot be dismissed as a factor.

When people are desperate for money to pay their rent or their car loan or buy groceries, they may already be more inclined to put themselves in danger. And managers who aren’t decent enough to send them home or order them not to report are exploiting that desperation.

McKayla Emery, who spoke to NBC News on Monday from a hospital bed, said she chose to stay at work in the hopes of making some extra money, but those who wanted to go, she said, were told by managers, “If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired.”

Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products, told NBC News that reports of such threats are “absolutely untrue.” He said, “We’ve had a policy in place since Covid began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.” Similarly, Autumn Kirks, a team lead at the factory Friday night, denied reports of threats.

It’s easier to conceive of an octet of flying reindeer than of a factory with a come-and-go-as-you-please policy for its employees. And other employees report threats similar to those Emery said she heard. “Some people asked if they could leave,” employee Latavia Halliburton said, but managers told them if they left they’d be fired. Haley Conder said she was told, “You can’t leave. You have to stay here.”

While multiple news reports have describing the tornado that hit Kentucky as a rare December event, John T. Allen, director of the Earth and Ecosystem Science program at Central Michigan University, told me Monday that “it's not unprecedented to have December outbreaks” and that Tornado Alley, historically associated with the Great Plains, has been “shifting eastwards … in the past few decades … increasing the likelihood that we could see events like this.”

Take it from someone whose childhood home in North Mississippi was destroyed by a Dec. 23 tornado, a warm and sticky December day can be a harbinger of death and destruction. Given the heat in Kentucky on Friday, there must have been workers at the plant who were attuned to the signs and fearful of what was on the horizon.

A warm and sticky December day can be a harbinger of death and destruction.

But even after it was clear tornadoes were forming, those who wanted to run during a moment of relative calm were reportedly threatened with a Christmas pink slip. Some left anyway.

Believing Mayfield Consumer Products’ employees doesn’t mean believing its management is uniquely bad. There is a pervasive belief that workers are to obey their managers — even if it kills them. Before he was on the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch infamously supported a trucking company’s termination of a trucker who, faced with the choice of freezing to death or leaving behind his load, left behind his load.

But just like Emery says she chose to stay at the factory to make more money, there are workers who feel they have got to report to work, no matter the risk.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many conservatives had fun mocking the New Orleanians who got stranded in the city as either lazy or dumb. Those doing the mocking couldn’t imagine their targets as hardworking or conscientious. But many of them were aware of how disposable they were in the eyes of their managers and were more afraid of HR than any hurricane.

"I didn't want to lose my job," a woman with two small children said when I asked why she’d reported to her hotel housekeeping job as many others were hightailing it out of town. She was one of several people I interviewed who’d reported to (or tried to report to) hotel, restaurant or security jobs that weekend and were still in town when the destructive weather arrived.

In 2017, as Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida, the manager of a Jacksonville Pizza Hut wrote a memo threatening to fire employees who heeded the governor’s evacuation warnings, and though the chain’s corporate office blamed a rogue franchisee, employees at other Florida franchises told The Washington Post that they’d been told to essentially disregard government warnings, too.

As for Friday night’s tornadoes, we don’t know if any of those who were discouraged from leaving the candle factory died there; we don’t know if those who asked to leave would have survived the trip home or if they would have survived at home. The damage was widespread, and more people were reportedly killed outside the factory than were killed inside of it.

But that doesn’t really matter. They were reportedly told that they could stay employed or try to run from the storm, but not both. While we are justified in wondering if the tornado itself is evidence of an increasingly inhospitable climate, we already have all the evidence we need that the climate inside the American workplace can be as deadly as any weather outside.